Chappy Landowners File Formal Appeal to State Tax Board
By IAN FEIN
More than two dozen Chappaquiddick landowners took their property tax disputes to the state last week, filing formal appeals of their town property assessments at the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board.
The 26 property owners are challenging the values of 46 individual parcels, currently assessed by the town of Edgartown at a total of $116 million.
The tax board clerk who has handled Dukes County appeals for the last 15 years said that tax board employees took note of the unusual number of Edgartown appeals when they arrived last week. He said the board typically sees very little activity from Vineyard towns, maybe a few appeals each year.
The formal tax board filings mark another turning point in the town's ongoing process of vast property value corrections begun by assessors last winter.
Attorney Donald Quinn of Plymouth, who represents the two dozen Chappaquiddick owners, praised the Edgartown assessors this week for their efforts so far and said he hopes to continue negotiations on the appealed properties.
"They recognized that mistakes were made and they made a sincere effort to come up with a system to rectify the most egregious instances," Mr. Quinn said yesterday. "However, a lot still needs to be done."
After a townwide revaluation last fall, assessors were flooded with a record number of 260 requests for property tax relief, 160 of them from Chappaquiddick.
Assessors acknowledged this spring that their third-party consultant - Vision Appraisal Technology Inc. of Northboro - overvalued much of the waterfront land on Chappaquiddick; the board later granted abatements to some 127 Chappaquiddick properties, lowering their collective value by more than $150 million and returning to the owners more than $450,000 in collected taxes.
A Massachusetts Department of Revenue bureau chief said this month that to her knowledge no town in the commonwealth had ever granted so many significant abatements, especially in a particular area of town.
Mr. Quinn and assessors both said they hope to avoid litigation and negotiate settlements before the cases go to hearings, which would not be scheduled until next spring or summer at the earliest. But after learning of the appeals at their monthly meeting on Monday, the board suggested that Edgartown selectmen be notified of the upcoming cases so that they may put more money into the town legal budget.
A complex and unusual property tax appeal in West Tisbury that went to the appellate tax board this summer has depleted that town's legal budget. A tax board decision is still months away.
"It is always the hope to settle, but you have to defend our values at some point," Edgartown assessor Edward Belisle said yesterday. "That's what you do."
Mr. Quinn remained optimistic about settlement.
"We have had good communication with the assessors and we hope that we can continue meaningful discussions with respect to the appealed cases that will bring about a more equitable situation for not only the people of Chappaquiddick, but also for the rest of Edgartown," he said.
Mr. Quinn said some landowners who did not appeal their values to the tax board are still unhappy with their assessments.
"They have asked me to monitor the ongoing valuation system like a hawk. And if they feel that the unfairness they received last year is reinstated, they will file for another abatement next year," he said.
Mr. Quinn will not be the only one monitoring the new Chappaquiddick values.
Marilyn Browne, chief of the Bureau of Local Assessments in the Department of Revenue, said this month that the bureau - which oversees and certifies assessments across the commonwealth - will send someone to Edgartown this fall to review the new values throughout the town. She acknowledged that it was unusual for the bureau to send an employee to a town assessors office during a non-revaluation year.
After Edgartown assessors confronted Vision Appraisal representatives about the errors this spring, district manager Stephen Ferreira apologized and acknowledged that he made a mistake. The company offered to conduct valuations on Chappaquiddick this year at no cost to the town.
Edgartown assessor Laurence A. Mercier said his board will keep a sharp eye on Vision Appraisal's work.
"We're going to be very diligent this time looking at what they come up with," Mr. Mercier said yesterday. "Just to make sure they have it right this time."
Mr. Mercier made his displeasure with Vision known this spring, pointing to a number of areas in town where he believes the company made major errors.
Other possible errors in Katama surfaced at the assessors' meeting this week. Edgartown Bay Road resident Mark Snider told the assessors' office earlier this month that a group may form to challenge values. Town assessor William Pfluger told the board that no sales exist in the immediate vicinity of Edgartown Bay Road to either justify or not justify the high values. The board is considering lowering each value by as much as $1 million.
Assessors also discussed hiring a full-time data collector, so Vision Appraisal would not have to be hired for revaluations in the future.
Vision Appraisal has assisted in revaluations for every other Island town except Chilmark. The company's methods came under scrutiny in the West Tisbury property tax appeal this summer, when attorneys for West Tisbury resident William W. Graham charged that the Vision Appraisal system is fundamentally flawed.
Mr. Quinn has leveled similar charges in Edgartown.
"In an earlier meeting with the assessors I indicated that we had come to the conclusion that the system itself was flawed," Mr. Quinn said this week. "And when I stated that, there were objections to that concept from the assessors themselves. However, they have subsequently recognized a large number of mistakes," he added.
"We still believe the system is flawed," Mr. Quinn said.
Mr. Belisle responded.
"That's his opinion - just like the opinion that West Tisbury's system is flawed," Mr. Belisle said. "Vision does revals throughout New England. So that would mean that all those assessing practices are flawed," he continued.
"That's not for me to decide," the longtime assessor concluded. "That's for a judge to decide."